Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1979, Part I
Johnny, rosin’ up your bow and play your fiddle hard.
1. “Blue Kentucky Girl,” Emmylou Harris. After Loretta Lynn had a hit with the Johnny Mullins composition “Success,” she asked the songwriter/Missouri school janitor to write a song specifically for her. Mullins penned “Blue Kentucky Girl” for Loretta, resulting in a Top Ten hit for her in 1965. The lyrics about a pining love were actually a better fit for Emmylou Harris, who also had a Top Ten hit with her version and she received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song. In preparation to attend the 1980 Grammy Awards, Mullins was loaned a tuxedo by a school board member and Springfield, Missouri school students and staff donated travel money. Elvis Costello released a cover of “Success” in 1981 and Mullins retired from his janitor gig in 1982.
2. “Crazy Love,” Poco. Poco was a country rock outfit that emerged from the ashes of Buffalo Springfield in 1968, with the original members being Richie Furay, Jim Messina, and Rusty Young. Band personnel changed regularly (Timothy B. Schmit was in Poco prior to joining the Eagles and Randy Meisner joined Poco after quitting that band). The band just made enough money to survive until having their first hit with the Rusty Young penned “Crazy Love.” The soft rock sound of “Crazy Love” barely scraped into the country charts, but their style of music, along with the Eagles, would become prevalent in county music during the 1990s. Rusty Young in 2008, “”The only reason we’re talking now is ‘Crazy Love’. That was our first hit single. It’s a classic, and it still pays the mortgage.”
3. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” The Charlie Daniels Band. Hell first broke loose in Georgia with Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1925 poem “The Mountain Whippoorwill: How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddler’s Prize.” It’s a story of a young mountain man who travels to the Essex County Fair and beats all the old, highly regarded players through his divinely inspired performance. Charlie Daniels reformatted that piece of inspiration to develop his signature song about Satan making a soul stealing bet in the Peach State. The music was quite the cut and paste job with the melody being taken from Vassar Clements’ “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” and with quotes from fiddle tunes, folk songs, folk rhymes, and square dance patter. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” makes a good starting point for any “research versus plagiarism” discussion. Still, a multi-genre smash, topping the country charts and peaking at #3 as a pop hit.
4. “Family Tradition,” Hank Williams Jr. As the son of country music’s most iconic figure, Hank Williams, Jr. was part of a grand show biz tradition – he was exploited after the death of his father to cash in on the brand name. At the age of fifteen, he scored a #5 country hit with a cover of his father’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and was basically marketed as a Hank Williams impersonator. By the late 1970s, Hank Williams, Jr. had established his own artistic identity, but never tired of reminding his audience about his genetic validity. On “Family Tradition” he defends his Southern rock influences and justifies his heavy partying as intrinsic to his biological legacy.
5. “Farewell Party,” Gene Watson. East Texas native Gene Watson spent his twenties working at an auto body shop during the day and performing at Houston area clubs in the evenings. He was signed by Capitol Records in 1974 and had immediate success as a balladeer. “Farewell Party” was written by Lawton Williams, who penned the late 1950’s hits “Fraulein,” “Geisha Girl,” and “Color of the Blues.” Originally recorded by Little Jimmy Dickens in 1960, Watson makes a request to his significant other to pretend to have loved him at his funeral. However, he knows she’ll be glad when he’s gone. Considered to be Watson’s signature song, “Farewell Party” was one of over twenty Top Ten country hits that Watson scored between 1975 and 1988.
6. “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” Johnny Cash. Songwriter Stan Jones wrote almost exclusively about Western mythology, he composed music for Western films and had several minor acting roles. “Riders in the Sky”/“Ghost Riders”/“(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”/”A Cowboy’s Legend” is his most famous composition, a story of epic proportions where a daunted observer watches damned spirits chase steel hooved, fire branded cattle and is warned that this unwinnable battle could be his fate, lest he change his evil ways. A #1 pop hit/#2 country single for Vaughn Monroe in 1948, “Riders in the Sky” returned to both charts on several occasions prior to Cash’s 1979 #2 country release. The Man in Black had the gravitas to match any fable of biblical proportions.
7. “I Know a Heartache When I See One,” Jennifer Warnes. Jennifer Warnes had a varied career in the entertainment industry which included being a performer on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” starring in a Los Angeles production of “Hair,” and having a long professional association with Leonard Cohen. Like Linda Ronstadt, Warnes was working with L.A. studio musicians and having crossover success on the country charts. Her 1976 breakthrough pop hit “Right Time of the Night” went Top Twenty on the country charts and “I Know a Heartache When I See One,” where the singer rejects a sweet talking cheater, was a Top Ten country hit. Warnes is best known to music fans for her #1 single/Bill Medley duet “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from the movie “Dirty Dancing.” As of this writing, baby remains uncornered.
8. “It’s a Cheating Situation,” Moe Bandy with Janie Fricke. Indiana native Janie Fricke moved to Nashville in the mid-1970s and worked as a studio backing vocalist. She eventually became a member of Johnny Duncan’s band, then became a successful solo act. “It’s a Cheating Situation” was her second major hit in a duet, this #2 single followed her 1978 Charlie Rich partnership on “On My Knees,” her first and Rich’s last chart topper. Nashville legends Curly Putnam and Sonny Throckmorton penned “It’s a Cheating Situation,” a ballad that views sin as inevitable after the home fires stop burning. Fricke was a bigger star than most people would remember. She scored nineteen Top Ten singles from 1980 to 1986, including eight #1 hits.
9. “Just Good Ol’ Boys,” Moe Bandy & Joe Stampley. Moe and Joe weren’t exactly Waylon and Willie, but this prototype bro country act scored six Top Ten singles from 1979 to 1984, including this 1979 chart topper. Written by Stampley’s piano player Ansley Fleetwood, “Just Good Ol’ Boys” is a knife cuttin’, hot wirin’, ring hockin’ look at how the working class get by and raise hell. The duo’s last Top Ten hit was 1984’s “Where’s the Dress,” a description of how gobsmacked the good ol’ boys were by Boy George of the Culture Club.
10. “My Own Kind of Hat,” Merle Haggard. Haggard was bitching about being on the wrong side of 40 on the 1979 album track “Footlights,” but the Cajun waltz stomp of “My Own Kind of Hat” proved he still had plenty of juice. Penned with Red Lane, Haggard sneaks in some saucy lyrics about “two kinds of cherries and two kinds of fairies and two kinds of mothers.” His final and thirty first Top Ten hit of the decade.